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Listening until you actually hear someone

Betty Firth
Posted 1/20/21

Conversations, discussions, arguments, rants, they’re all happening all over the country concerning the events of Jan. 6 in our nation’s capital. As a person who’s always trying to …

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Listening until you actually hear someone


Conversations, discussions, arguments, rants, they’re all happening all over the country concerning the events of Jan. 6 in our nation’s capital. As a person who’s always trying to figure out what makes people tick (including myself), I have to say that I don’t get it; that is, I don’t get how so many people could disagree with me so completely, because I think I’m reasonable, fairly well-informed, and thoughtful (and right). However, what I’ve learned is that everybody else thinks that, too, about themselves. It’s like the sense of humor thing and the driving thing; I’ve heard that everyone thinks they have a good sense of humor and everyone thinks that they’re good drivers. Well, clearly, there are a lot of bad drivers out there running off the road and crashing into other cars or just causing havoc on the highways, and there are plenty of people who don’t get my sense of humor. Since I know I have a good sense of humor, that must indicate we can’t all be right.
But what is clear is that we have become very stratified in our self-defined worlds, and we all find it very difficult to look outside of our own particular layers of opinions to understand someone else’s point of view or even to be able to hear what they have to say. The political mess we’ve been living through makes that crystal clear.
Don’t misunderstand me: I am not one of those who are saying, “We should just let bygones be bygones and let the healing begin.” No, I think people need to face the consequences of their very illegal actions. But what has struck me is that people who believe the opposite of what I do will use exactly the same words that I do. For example, there’s a huge Trump flag (still!) flying in my neighborhood with the words on the bottom, “No more B.S.” Really? I think, are you kidding me? Yeah, NOW it’s true, but only because Trump is leaving office. Another Trump supporter said Trump was being unfairly treated, that he did nothing to incite the mob, that there was no justification for impeachment. He said “conservatives” are being stripped of their civil rights and they fear for the future of the country. He added that we must stop this culture of hatred for those with differing opinions and that peace can only be achieved through conversation, discussion, and eventual concessions from both sides. Wait a minute…that’s my line! Did this man actually ever listen to the words coming out of Trump’s mouth for the last four years and beyond? What about the civil liberties of those who have been murdered in the frenzy of racist rhetoric the Donald likes so much? Of the voters whose votes he attempted to invalidate? It is so “1984,” and if you haven’t read George Orwell’s book, you might want to.
I can sound flippant about all of this, but I’m really not. It breaks my heart that we humans do things so badly. It just seems like evolution lost steam after the Galapagos turtles. Why don’t we learn more quickly how to do it better, how to stop hurting each other?
I do believe that there is good in every human being, somewhere. Sometimes it may be hard to access, but very few babies start out as bad actors; that damage happens along the way. I also recognize that I’m no saint. I’m often impatient, judgmental, and crabby, and most days, I could be more disciplined. I try not to inflict myself on others on my worst days, but that doesn’t make me considerate; it just means I’m trying to look better than I am.
If we’re honest, we’d admit that many days we find our pets better company than a lot of our fellow humans. BUT, given all that, I do believe we can do a better job understanding each other and getting along. After all, my words fell out of that Trump supporter’s mouth, so maybe we do have common ground to build on. What’s the magic solution?
I think it’s pretty simple–not easy, but simple. I think at the heart of most misunderstandings and a lot of violence is the inability or unwillingness to listen. Most of us are born with the ability to hear, but listening well is a skill that needs to be developed. Think about the most common words that are tossed at others during arguments: Do you ever listen to me? Can’t you hear what I’m saying? How many times to I have to tell you this? I don’t think you’ve heard a word I’ve said. You never listen to me. What are you, deaf? I’m NOT going to say it again! Those are all signs of human beings longing to be heard, to be understood.
Since the early 90s, I’ve practiced co-counseling, aka Re-evaluation Counseling or R.C., a form of peer counseling. It’s based on the idea that we all need to be able to listen well and be listened to; to talk about what’s going well in our lives, what could go better, and what’s getting in the way of achieving our goals. Many of us do not have that in our lives. Having learned some basic techniques, each person takes an equal amount of time to talk freely and confidentially with the other person listening without judgement, advice, or comments.
Instead of cultivating listening skills, I feel that we have become addicted to our own opinions, compulsively commenting even when we have nothing of value to say. The sound of our own voices lulls us into thinking we’re quite brilliant and so should keep talking. The need to spew out our judgements keeps us opining, giving us a high that demands more, like snorting cocaine. After all, without our opinions, who are we?
I challenge you to give this a try. Try visiting with a friend for ten minutes without voicing an opinion. OK, maybe three minutes. Instead, say nothing or try those three magic words, “Tell me more.” Listen with fascinated attention, like Nancy Reagan did with Ronnie. You might find it difficult. But you also may find that you learn more listening than you ever did when you were talking. You may get to know your friend better, more deeply, than you ever have, even if you have known each other for years.
And imagine what might happen if you really listened to someone who heartily disagrees with you. That forbidden topic you always avoid might come to light, safely. You might just find it’s a relief not to have to be right about everything all the time. Maybe I’ll give that conservative who is longing for peace a call.